Ignorance IS bliss, at least when it propels you to an amazing new place. So it was with Ecuador. I know, I know: As travel editor, I'm supposed to be the expert on the more obscure regions of our planet. But when I heard that the highlands of Ecuador are dotted with colonial haciendas converted to exquisite inns where native chefs cook dishes passed down through generations, I cried "Who knew?" And, immediately thereafter, "When can I go?"
I signed up for a weeklong hiking expeditionwith stays in five of those haciendasoffered by the excellent adventure-travel outfit Mountain Travel Sobek. Our first day, my dozen compadres and I traded notes on one of South America's least-explored countries as we ate breakfast on 200-year-old Hacienda La Carriona's terrace, framed by bougainvillea and 10-foot palms. The sum of our collective knowledge was this: Ecuador is half the size of France, was the first Latin American country to attain democracy and means "equator."
It didn't take long to learn more, starting with breakfast. We immediately understood that Ecuadorans are very, very good at the morning meal. The menu would vary little from day to day: just-baked briochelike rolls, eggs any way, homemade quince or papaya preserves, queso fresco, good strong coffee and fruit juice. The last is an exquisite foaming essence of fruit, and not just orange, grapefruit and pineapple, but naranjilla, granadilla and maracuyá. Naranjilla? A tiny, green, pucker-tart orangelike affair. Granadilla? A type of passion fruit that tastes like a tomatillo crossed with a mango. Maracuyá is the more familiar passion fruit, wrinkled, black and pippy. All in all, Ecuador has more fruits than Iowa has cornfields.
The learning curve climbed vertiginously when Andrés de la Torre, our tour guide, arrived and spread out the map. We'd already met his assistant, María Clara Espinoza en route from Quito. MTS makes a point of hiring guides for whom guiding is a vocation, and de la Torre and Espinoza are paragons. No question went unanswered, no request unhonored (a policy that was severely tested when I nearly forced them to adopt a lost Labrador retriever).
Ecuador, explained de la Torre, consists of four distinct regions. The Galápagos Islands are the haunt of fishermen and Darwin groupies. The Oriente, the eastern part of mainland Ecuador, is dense Amazonian rain forest that contains less than 10 percent of the country's population but, crucially for the economy, a great deal of oil. On the Costa, or western lowlands, lie unspoiled beaches fringed with coconut palms, the industrial city of Guayaquil and untold bazillions of bananas. We were in the Sierra, bang in between the Costa and the Oriente. These Andean highlands are the fertile heart of the nation. Everything grows herepotatoes, quinoa, barley, potatoes, corn (with kernels the size of almonds), broccoli, wheat, beans, potatoes, roses, chiles, pimientos and potatoes. A lot of potatoes. After all, papas hail from the Andes, where they come in a hundred varieties, including highly specialized sorts that grow only above 8,000 feet.
Having increased our geographic knowledge roughly a thousandfold, de la Torre pointed south to the thrillingly named Avenue of the Volcanoes, among whose slopes and peaks our haciendas were secreted. Our first volcano would be Volcán Pasochoa, at a mere 13,860 feet the perfect nursery slope for altitude acclimation.
Into the bus we climbed. The bus was handled by Estuardo Ulloa, who, on narrow, bumpy tracks and around tight village corners, proved a far more impressive (though slower) driver than Sandra Bullock in Speed. He drove to the head of a gentle trail past stone farmsteads and an arboreal landscape that resembled New England, apart from the snow-capped crags towering over the pines.
After a few hours on Pasochoa, we faced the important matter of luncha build-your-own-sandwich affair that set the pattern for the week. Every day, de la Torre would lead us to some remote location, where Espinoza would miraculously conjure a grand feastone day, guacamole and all the trimmings in an impenetrable fog halfway up a volcano; another day, warm llapingachos (potato pancakes with cheese and onion) in a ruined hacienda; yet another (memorable) day, lox and bagels inside the bus during a monsoon.
Pasochoa may have been a beginner's hike, but by late afternoon we were glad to see Hacienda La Ciénega. Built in the 1600s, this whitewashed Moorish mini-palace is historically important (the treaty granting independence to Ecuador was signed here in 1831) and has a grand, symmetrical elegance. It was not, however, the most luxurious of haciendas, especially in regard to its intermittent water supply. Still, the slight privations made for an anachronistic medieval-knights sort of spirit in the banquet hall, where we received a quick lesson in soup taxonomy. The basic Ecuadoran soups are, in ascending order of thickness: caldos, sopas, locros, ajís, chupes and cremas. The delicious soup before us, ají de carne, contained not just potatoes and beef but also plantains and peanuts; it fortified us for the next day's assault on Cotopaxi.
Wherever we went that week, Cotopaxi loomed in the background. At 19,350 feet, it is one of the world's tallest active volcanoes and surely its prettiest, with a perfectly conical peak and a hat of snow, like a gigantic iced popover. Our hike up its deserted slopespart moonscape, part prairietook us to a minor Inca ruin unmarred by signage or any other evidence of previous visitors.
The exquisite Hacienda San Agustín de Callo, where we stayed that night, had itself been built around remnants of an Inca palace. We were the guests of Mignon Plaza, a one-woman Ecuadoran-improvement committee whose plans for her hacienda include another guest house with a restaurant, an artist-in-residence program, new kitchens, a residency for star chefs and a bullring. (Her father was a legendary amateur bullfighter; his father, by the way, was president of Ecuador.) Plaza welcomed us in the courtyard, which later filled up with the family llamas (they're grumpy and smelly, like camels), and gave us a round of canelazoswarm, spiced cane liquor with naranjilla juice. Then she led us into the dining room for timbushca (a wholesome meat and potato soup that inexplicably had been left off the previous night's syllabus), garlic shrimp and maracuyá-meringue tart.
The next day's hike, through a high Andean pass, might have featured the most stunning scenery of the week. I can't be sure though, because this was the day of the monsoon. Ecuador, being equatorial, is warm, but in rainy season it gets very, very wet. Furthermore, at high elevations the temperature can ratchet down 20 degrees in no time. Uncharacteristically, I had heeded MTS's packing suggestions, and on this day every single item I had picked up from Eastern Mountain Sportswaterproof boots, rain pants, hooded Gore-Tex jacket, wicking underlayers, big socksturned out to be vital.
At the end of that wet trial of a trail, we came to Zuleta. This was one occasion when it was better to arrive hopefully than to travel. One of the only large haciendas that is still a working farm, Zuleta is a family home, open only to MTS and a few other outfits. And what a home. The rooms are pared down, country-estate style, outfitted only with fireplaces, a few colonial antiques, and intricately embroidered linen cuffs and yokes, in frames on the wallshand embroidery being one of the many cottage industries on the estate. We visited (and shopped) the Zuleta embroidery workshop after we saw the small Zuleta cheese factory, and before we rode on horseback to the Zuleta condor rehabilitation project, which is trying to save this massive Andean bird from extinction.
After touring the various Zuleta enterprises, we repaired to the baronial dining room with Fernando Polanco Plaza, the son of one of the hacienda's owners. "In this house," declared Fernando, truthfully, "food is an art." This has a lot to do with chef José María Pumisácho, who was born at Zuleta. His torta de arroz, a rich, comforting gratin that fell somewhere between lasagna and risotto, was quite new to me. And, since we were there for All Souls' Day, we were treated to the traditional colada morada, a spiced cold drink of red and black berries, with sweet bread baked in the shape of little people.
So festive was Zuleta I was worried that the rest of the trip would be all, well, downhill. But my fears were unfounded. If anything, the fun escalatedall the way to the last minute. At Hacienda Guachalá, owner Diego Bonifaz entertained us with the entire history of Ecuador, haciendas and himself. (That's not sarcasm; the man needs his own talk show.) Hacienda Pinsaqui brought us one of the world's great eccentrics: owner Pedro Freile, an Anthony Quinn look-alike who rode his beloved palomino down the stone steps into the ancient cellar bar and required every one of us to sit astride it for a picture. On my last night, I somehow found myself dancing at 2 a.m., mojito in hand, to a Buena Vistacaliber Cuban band in a Quito club, thus nearly missing the flight home at dawn. Yes, it turned out the place was that goodthis newly minted Ecuador expert was attempting not to leave.
Mountain Travel Sobek hiking expeditions: $2590 per person for a group of 6-10 people; $2390 per person for a group of 11-15 people
Recipes by Maricel Presilla, a Latin-American food historian, restaurateur and cookbook author. Her most recent book is A New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and National History with Recipes.